"Call of the Dragon, Part I"
"Call of the Dragon, Part II"
"Ruins and Hopes"
"Shield Maiden" Cornell #3
"Warrior Eternal" Cornell #4
"Childhood of a Fighter"
"The Pledge" Cornell #5
"The Rock of Discontent"
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"A Tale of the Gods"
"The Miracle of Solstice Day" Cornell #6
"The Pilgrims' Trial and Faith"
XI. Playing Mortal <=== / ===> XIII. Two Searchers
“Did you enjoy the gathering?” Darawk asked absentmindedly, bent over a pile of parchment on the table before him.
Alyssa grunted unhappily. “Sure did, brother of mine. I nearly tore Haguen’s stupid head from his shoulders.”
The old man chuckled lightly, receiving a withering glance from the goddess who then turned the same glare on her brother. “Then I stuffed Mannannan into an amphora, sent it spinning endlessly. After that I took Koultirsp and Haguen, and bashed them into Decirius’ tower. When the lower levels were completely demolished, I went to see Decirius and threw him from the highest point of his home.”
“I’m sure you had a good time. Hold this, please.”
Not turning around, Darawk held out a stack of parchments, and Alyssa sighed heavily when she took them, while her brother dug through the pile that had been beneath the first stack, reordering the parchments. “You know, brother of mine, occasionally it would be nice if you actually listened to what I say.”
Darawk cried eagerly when he found a particular sheet, scanned its contents quickly before placing it carefully on the table. Then he blinked and turned towards Alyssa with an innocent look. “But I do listen to you all the time, my dear. There is no reason for complaint, believe me.”
“Oh?” Alyssa grinned mischievously. “Then what did I just tell you?”
Darawk shrugged. “You were ranting about how you would like to hurt Mannannan, Koultirsp, Haguen and Decirius. Really, dear sister, these fantasies of yours are not exactly new – although I do appreciate the enthusiasm you put into diversifying them.”
Her jaw dropped. Gaping at her brother, she could have sworn that somewhere behind that insufferably innocent face was a smug grin. Somewhere. And he better not show it openly! Alyssa was in the right mood to make at least one of her fantasies come true!
“At least I’m doing something,” she sighed. “Better than sifting through some documents. The old man and I were trying to get the other gods to put their minds together. But those fools can barely stay in the same room for more than five minutes before picking a fight!”
Darawk frowned and cast a quick glance across the room to the old man. The stranger was sitting in a wicker chair by a manhigh window, tugging on his tattered coat. “You haven’t –“ Darawk started, swallowing the rest of his words quickly.
The old man raised his eyebrows, then smiled wistfully. “Do not worry, my young friend, I have not. The warning of your abode’s lord were very clear, and I do not wish to anger the, as your sister put it, ‘pasty-faced baboon’ anymore than I already have. What is a baboon, by the way?”
“A baboon?” Darawk asked cheerfully. “A marvelous little thing these creatures are. Made by the same abode who devised the mongoose, as far as I know. They came up with baboons a few dozen millenia ago. Their shape –“
“Excuse me?” Alyssa interjected angrily. “What are you talking about – and don’t say baboons, brother! You know exactly what I mean!”
The god’s face fell as he saw the fury in his sister’s eyes. After withstanding her fire for a few moments he hurriedly turned back to the pile of documents. “I’m sorry, I have no idea. Now if you’ll pardon me, I –“
“You’re going to answer me!” the goddess shouted and waved her hand up and down. A sudden gust of wind came out of nowhere and scattered the papers from Darawk’s table. He leaped up, tried vainly to catch a few of the sheets, gave up when even three quickly grown arms would not suffice.
“Why did you do that?” he shouted and raised his (currently five) arms exasperatedly.
“I can do much worse,” Alyssa promised, “if you don’t speak up now. I could go reading in your library with a torch. By accident, of course, I might set a few of those precious volumes aflame.”
In his wicker chair the old man watched with interest – and quite a bit of surprise about the nasty turn the discussion seemed to have taken.
Darawk on the other hand showed only frustration rather than fear or anger. “My books are fireproof, you know that. Please, sister, don’t ask any more. Decirius –“
“He’s frightened you,” Alyssa said with sudden calm. She put a hand on her forehead, took a deep breath, then made a wicker chair appear behind her so she could sit down. “Our chief god has frightened you. A god that you’ve known for all your existence. I could accept Lonapal acting like a vole and scurrying to the next hole, or Haguen deluding himself that he’s doing his duty. But you… Darawk, dear, you…” Her voice trailed off.
The god of knowledge shook his head slowly, then stepped forward and put his hand on her shoulder. “Something has happened to all of us, it seems. Lately I’ve come to sympathize with the creatures of the midrealm, like the villagers you and Lonapal fancy. They spend their existence at our whim, expecting dread and joy at every heartbeat.”
Alyssa closed her eyes, rested her head for a moment on his hand, then she gently pushed it away and got back to her feet. “We are not midrealm creatures, Darawk,” she said, every word growing more forceful. “We are gods. It’s about time we acted that way. What’s the worst Decirius could do to us? Throw us out of the abode?”
She was close to regaining the old fury, ready to rattle off some more angry words – then she noticed a strange expression on her brother’s face. One that was mirrored on the old man’s. “He did not! Decirius didn’t say he’d throw you out of the Eternal City!”
“Sister, I –“
“Shut up,” Alyssa muttered. Quickly she started to pace up and down the length of Darawk’s study, ignoring his indignated looks, while she tapped her fingers on her lips. The god of knowledge shook his head, folded his arms before his chest – and realized that the fifth had no paired number. He grunted, then dropped the supernumerous limbs. Meanwhile Alyssa was rambling to herself, “Something made Decirius do this. Something… The old man? No, not he alone. Decirius has a plan, one that he doesn’t want anybody else to know. So he locks us up, keeps us from finding out anything. Is he worried that other abodes may find out? The old man could be a spy…”
In his wicker chair the old man raised an eyebrow at that comment, a light smile playing on his lips as if amused that he could be thought of as a spy.
Alyssa continued her pacing and mumbling. Finally satisfied with the number of his arms, Darawk commented, “Sister, he has not kept all of us in the Eternal City. Maidoyú has escaped, and Taurkémad left a short while before the gate was closed.”
“What?” Alyssa whirled about in a graceful pirouette, her skirt flying up for a moment. “You’re absolutely right, brother of mine! Taurkémad left before! Decirius wouldn’t care about Maidoyú, the little girl doesn’t know her own mind, what else would she know? But Taurkémad… Taurkémad, she’s different!”
The old man leaned forward in his chair, resting his hands on his walking stick. “In what way is she different?” he inquired gently.
“She has a brain, for one thing,” Alyssa shot back, paced three more steps, then came to a halt at an equal distance from the two male gods. “And she cares about the midrealm. Darawk, you just mentioned them. But Taurkémad frets only about her dwarves. She took part in creating them, after all. Decirius convinced her some while ago that only he should talk to the dwarves, which took all his wit to accomplish. Or… did he?”
“What are you thinking?” Darawk asked, clearly intrigued by her line of thought. “Mind you,” he hastily added, “I am not inquiring about why the abode has been locked down. Only about Taurkémad.”
“Granted,” Alyssa waved the added words away, then tapped a finger against her lips in an even rhythm. “What if the two of them lied to us? What if Taurkémad had been in on Decirius’ little game from the start? She pretended to relent, but she still kept in touch with the dwarves, thus furthering our chief god’s goals.”
“Well…” Darawk sighed and sat down casually on his desk. In the process he wrinkled several sheets that had still stayed on the tabletop. The god glared at them with a mixture of frustration and anger that the sheets would thus betray him, then he shook his head and continued, “Taurkémad has been visiting the cave of the dwarves every other century or so, when they sleep. She’s taken a number of their artefacts and displays them in her home. Decirius hasn’t complained.”
Alyssa nodded quickly. “No, he hasn’t. If they had been honest, he would have forbidden her from going to the dwarves, right? After all, how could Taurkémad be sure that one of them wouldn’t wake and see her?”
“I think,” Darawk said with a glint in his eyes, “you are on to something here, sister of mine.”
The goddess curtsied gracefully, a naughty grin on her face. “Why, thank you, oh divine brother of mine. My mind’s faculties must share some of your impeccable grandeur.”
“Excuse me?” the old man said and tapped his walking stick on the floor. The other gods whirled their heads about in sudden shock as if they had forgotten about his presence. “Excuse me,” the old man repeated, “but why did Decirius want to talk to the dwarves alone? Also, did he convince the other abodes not to interfere? If those had a hand in the dwarves’ creation as well, then they would have a good right to guide the dwarves as well.”
Alyssa frowned, but Darawk only smiled. “The dwarves are our own creation. We used the villagers as templates and then went from there. The other abodes only observe, but they don’t interfere. The same way I only study their creations without questioning the motives of the creator gods.”
The old man nodded slowly. “That still leaves open the question of why Decirius would not allow anybody else to speak with the dwarves. Has he stated a reason at the time?”
“It was an experiment,” Alyssa answered. “To see if midrealm creatures could also be creative. The dwarves were given their caves, their axes, and the desire to form the stone. Decirius said that they should be left to their own minds mostly, so that we could see what they produce without any interference, save the guidance Decirius lends them.”
“But they still worship you?” the old man wondered.
“Yes, they do. The strength of their faith has always been with us, it has fueled our –“ Alyssa suddenly fell silent, looking down at herself with an expression of stupefaction on her face.
“What is it, sister?” Darawk asked, quickly covering the distance and clasping her hands.
She looked up. “They do not believe anymore, brother. I do not sense their faith within me. Do you?”
The stupefaction grasped the god of knowledge as well. “No,” he said slowly, worried. “There is no part of the dwarves left inside of me, either. But… I have felt them for millenia, ever since they were created, they have always been… Why have they stopped believing?!” The last words became a scream, so loud that the walls started to tremble, and Darawk quickly caught himself, looking about with embarrassment. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry,” Alyssa fumed. “This is part of his plan, I’m sure. Take away the worship, concentrate it on himself. We should have seen this from the start, brother. He’s wanted the dwarven worship and power for himself, that’s it. And Taurkémad… She must be in on it. I’m sure that she still receives their prayers’ fuel.”
Darawk’s head quivered, as if wondering whether to shake or to nod. “But that… That doesn’t explain Decirius’ behavior. Or does it? I mean, we would have found out sooner or later, and we would have questioned Decirius, or simply gone to the midrealm to set matters right again. Being locked up for sixty days doesn’t change that!”
“Unless,” Alyssa said carefully, “something is happening that will only take sixty days to be put in place.”
The old man got to his feet, his hands still resting on the walking stick. “My dear friends, I cannot imagine anything momentous that could be taken care of in the blink of an eye. And what are sixty days but a blink? Aside from that, good Darawk, I caution you to heed your lord’s words. You have already moved too close to breaking the oath you gave him.”
Darawk’s glance to the old man was cold enough to freeze a volcano. He didn’t say a word.
Alyssa felt less constrained. “You should keep your mouth shut, stranger. I am talking to my brother, and if you should ever say something like that again, I might wish to test my strength against yours.”
“No, please,” the old man said gently. “I did not want to anger you. But your brother should be more careful. To be sentenced harshly for a minor transgression, that is a fate he should not bear.”
Before Alyssa could speak, Darawk nodded quickly and said, “Yet a sentence richly deserved, that is one borne gladly.” The old man smiled, then Darawk tightened his grasp of his sister’s hands. “My dear, he is right. I will not inquire into my chief lord’s business any longer, for I am bound to his commands. I cannot do more than look into the matter of dwarves, of the midrealm, of worship. Of these topics we may speak, yet I will not go any further. Now.”
The goddess squinted at him. “Brother of mine, you’re making less sense since you’ve met the old man. All right, I understand. Get me that information.” She sighed, loosened his hold and started for the door. “Let’s meet again in a few hours, and then we’ll see whether I’ve found out something else. I am not bound by any particular oath, after all.”
She swept out of the room. Darawk and the old man shared a glance.
“We have work to do, I believe,” the god of knowledge broke the silence after a moment, then began to gather the scattered sheets of paper, assisted by the old man.